Parting words from Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon
Ryan Summerlin January 6, 2013
EAGLE – To say Peter Runyon was a political novice when he first took office as an Eagle County Commissioner is a bit of an understatement.
When he was elected to the post eight years ago, it marked the first time he had ever run for anything. But what he lacked in election experience, he made up for in his abiding love for Eagle County and its environs. That commitment to this place earned him his first four-year term in 2004 and re-election in 2008.
Runyon will leave office on Jan. 8, when newly elected Commissioner Jill Ryan has her swearing-in ceremony. But Runyon isn’t going far, because his heart has always been in Eagle County, even though he wasn’t born and raised here and has ventured away from the Colorado high country during his lifetime.
Runyon is an East Coaster by birth, but after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970, he decided to take a detour before getting on with his life.
“I had planned to be a full-time commercial photographer,” he said. But some good fortune related to the Vietnam lottery – he received a medial deferment – combined with a desire to take a break found him living a cliche.
“Like so many people at that time, we drove our Volkswagen van out west singing ‘Rocky Mountain High,'” he said. “Actually, that song didn’t come out until 1973 and I moved here in 1970, but the sentiment was definitely the same.”
Aspen was Runyon’s original Colorado destination, but on the way he stopped in Vail for a night. “Everyone seemed so friendly here,” he said. He did trek on to Aspen, but decided he liked the energy in Vail better, so he returned to see if he could find work. “Before I got a job bussing tables, I thought I would see if there was any photography jobs available,” he said.
Runyon heard that Vail Associates was looking for a staff photographer, and when he approached the personnel department secretary to inquire about the position, she told him she was authorized to ask two questions: Do you know how to do your own darkroom work and do you ski? Runyon answered “yes” to the darkroom question but admits he fudged on his skiing abilities. Eventually, he met with Bob Parker to discuss the position.
He got the job and stayed with Vail Associates for 10 years.
“Many of the iconic photos I did are ones they still use today,” he said.
As a side project, Runyon launched a postcard business in the mid-1970s with partner Margie Chapman. Ultimately, his position with Vail ended up financing the next phase of his life. As a company manager, Runyon was offered a special price on a lot in the Potato Patch area. He held onto the property for a number of years and then sold it for a tidy profit. By this time, he was ready to try something new.
“After being the staff photographer of a major ski resort, what could I do to top that? So I decided to go sailing,” said Runyon.
During his decade on the high seas, Runyon figures he racked up 50,000 or so miles offshore sailing. But while he was out sailing, that postcard company he established kept chugging along. When he returned from his travels in 1991, Runyon started a company called Mountain Sights, which produced an array of items such as shot glasses and coffee mugs with Vail images emblazoned on them. Runyon also was one of the first local shooters to embrace the potential of a new computer tool called Photoshop.
“I created a unique line of postcards – kittens skiing in deep powder and images like that,” said Runyon.
Twenty years ago marked a heyday for Runyon’s commercial ventures. Between Peter Runyon Postcards and Mountain Sights, he was selling about 2 million pieces per year. But even as he enjoyed that commercial success, Runyon was becoming increasingly concerned about what was happening in the valley. The decade away from the place he called home provided Runyon with a unique perspective on the valley’s growth. Because he wasn’t around to see the increments, the impact of the local building boom hit him full force.
“Basically, that’s the primary reason I decided to run for county commissioner,” Runyon said.
“The reason I wanted to become a county commissioner is I saw how the valley grew from 1970 to 2003,” said Runyon. “There was a mindset at that time that all growth was good and I was afraid that we could end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Runyon said his real “a-ha” moment happened when he attended a presentation by the Colorado State Demographer. The meeting was chock-full of facts and figures, but the one that stood out in Runyon’s mind was that if growth trends in Eagle County continued, the area’s population would hit 90,000 people by 2030.
“But after he said that, the state demographer turned around and said, ‘But that’s up to you.’ It was like he was talking directly to me,” said Runyon.
Runyon shared a statistic he often quotes: Currently, Eagle County has approximately 26,000 dwelling units – homes, duplexes, apartments, condos – built. However, there are an additional 15,000 dwelling units approved for construction in the valley. “That’s always something that’s in the back of my mind,” he said.
Runyon is quick to note that the economic landscape in Eagle County today is far different from when he first took office in 2004. After the housing bubble burst in 2008, the county followed the rest of the nation and new construction ground to a halt. But even though many local residents have urged him to be more proactive in approving new development, Runyon remains cautious.
“The reason why we don’t have construction jobs isn’t because of a lack of places to build. It’s because of the national economy,” he said.
As he reflected on his early days as an Eagle County commissioner, Runyon said he often acted as the board’s referee. During his first two years in office, Runyon served with often argumentative commissioners Tom Stone and Arn Menconi.
“Those first years in office were why good people don’t run for office,” he said.
Eventually, both Stone and Menconi came up against the same two-term limit that is now forcing Runyon from office. For the past four years, Runyon has served with Sara Fisher and Jon Stavney.
But Runyon noted that while the past four years have seen improvements in professionalism for county leaders, they have also seen lots of hard decisions. With the national economy tanking in 2008, the county was faced with drastically dwindling dollars. The county had to cut its budget and that meant people lost their jobs.
Runyon said 75 people are gone today who worked for the county back in 2008. “We gave a number of people early retirement,” he said. “We also tried mightily to get people transferred within the organization.”
Those were difficult days on the job, Runyon said. “When your are talking about 75 people, you are also typically talking about 75 spouses and 100 or so kids that you are affecting,” he said.
However, Runyon also noted those tough decisions simply had to be made for the county to remain in business. Today, he said, the county’s financial position is both stable and ready to weather additional tax revenue declines. That is one of the legacies Runyon is proud of. Better countywide communication is another.
Runyon said his proudest accomplishment during the past eight years was the institution of quarterly Mayors and Managers forums. Every four months, the mayors and managers of all Eagle County communities gather with the commissioners and other county officials to discuss issues of mutual concern.
“I hope that will carry on forever,” said Runyon.
He is also proud of the county’s tightened land use regulations and the collaborative work the county has done with other entities, including the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Runyon cited open space acquisition as another boon the county has seen over the past eight years.
A conversation about accomplishments inevitably leads to talk about regrets. Runyon is very forthcoming about the decision he would like to take back.
“We didn’t ask enough hard questions on the jail issue,” he said.
Two years ago, the county approved and built a large addition to its jail on the basis of reports showing the current facility could not meet the long-term need. But shortly after it opened, the addition was shut down when the inmate numbers were too small to support the additional jail beds.
“We took the advice we received as fact. If we had delayed a couple of years, we would have realized we didn’t need it immediately,” said Runyon.
As he prepares to hand over his duties to Ryan, Runyon’s best advice to the new commissioner is to “be reasonable.
“You can argue passionately, but you need to understand that every decision has both pluses and minuses,” he said. “I think Jill is going to be a very good commissioner because she has experience working here at the county.”
As he leaves, Runyon said he will miss the people he has worked with for the past eight years, but he knows the organization will do just fine without him.
“I would put the staff of Eagle County up against any private corporation,” said Runyon. “I think they are great and that we have come a long way.”